The wonder of Chris Hadfield

He saw space and Earth as if they were brand-new and shared his experience aboard the ISS with millions

The wonder of Chris Hadfield

James Blair/NASA

On May 13, as the Toronto Maple Leafs faced off against the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of their Stanley Cup playoff series, the Russian Soyuz spacecraft was undocking from the International Space Station (ISS). Crammed inside like sardines were Chris Hadfield and his crewmates, American Tom Marshburn and Russian Roman Romanenko, returning home after five months in space. Underneath his spacesuit, Hadfield was wearing a Leafs T-shirt to support his favourite team. The Soyuz sliced down into the atmosphere and began to slow, subjecting the astronauts to a punishing 4 Gs—four times Earth’s gravity—and making their limbs feel leaden, their breathing laboured: a harsh reintroduction to gravity after the weightlessness of space. As the Soyuz dropped to its landing site on a Kazakhstan plain, search-and-rescue helicopters were circling.

The capsule hit the ground with the force of a car crash, tipping over onto its side. “I was hanging from the ceiling,” Hadfield says. “Roman was in the middle, and Tom was lying on the floor.” Marshburn looked out the window, and saw “dirt and grass where space had been just moments before.” The search-and-rescue team pried open the hatch and Hadfield and his crew were greeted by the scent of springtime, mixed with the burnt smell of their charred spaceship.

Dr. Raffi Kuyumjian, Hadfield’s flight surgeon, was one of three Canadian Space Agency (CSA) people in Kazakhstan. (Hadfield’s wife, Helene, was watching from mission control in Houston.) After the astronauts had been lifted from the spacecraft and were seated, draped in blankets, Kuyumjian said, “The first thing I did was dial Helene on my cell and give it to Chris.” He and Helene assured each other they were fine, then Hadfield asked: “How’d the Leafs do?” She broke the news that his team had lost in overtime. With that, Canada’s first space commander was truly brought back to Earth.

Since blasting off to the ISS on Dec. 19, Hadfield has become the most celebrated astronaut alive, one destined for a spot alongside his hero, Neil Armstrong, whose 1969 moon landing inspired his own career. But while half a billion people watched Armstrong climb out of the lunar lander and set foot on the moon, this is a more cynical time—one less impressed by technological achievement. People have lived and worked aboard the ISS continuously since 2000, and visiting low-Earth orbit isn’t as exotic as walking on the moon, let alone Mars or beyond. It’s a wonder that a Canadian astronaut like Hadfield could catch anyone’s attention, let alone captivate millions around the world. Yet, however improbably, that’s what he did.

An astronaut for the Internet age, Hadfield has harnessed social media to open up space in an entirely new way. His YouTube videos, showing how to make a sandwich in space, or how to brush your teeth, have been viewed by millions. His Twitter followers have ballooned from around 20,000 at the time of the launch to almost a million. The songs he recorded from space, and the photos he snapped of Earth, have inspired people. Hadfield said he’d make this “Canada’s mission,” and he’s fulfilled that promise; but really, it’s a mission that was shared and followed by people around the world.

With his crash-landing in a Kazakhstan field, he was home, and if his return to Earth cost him certain powers—the ability to do playful flips in microgravity, to strum his Larrivée parlour guitar as he floated in mid-air, to move a refrigerator with his fingertips—his power to communicate with millions instantly, around the globe, remains. Hadfield returns to a planet changed by his mission, maybe more than he realizes. For a multitude of reasons—his unabashed enthusiasm, his willingness to be silly, or the feeling we were all up there with him—he made Canadians proud.

Moments after landing, the 53-year-old Hadfield bore little resemblance to the larger-than-life spaceship commander he’d become. He took slow, tentative steps, leaning on Kuyumjian’s arm. Under the dazzling sunlight, he looked pale and wan. Gravity was exerting its pull on him once again, compressing his spine, causing his back and neck to ache, the soles of his underused feet to hurt, even his lips and mouth to feel unfamiliar. “I’d learned how to talk with a weightless tongue,” he explains. Once able to fly around the ISS, Hadfield had to learn to walk and talk again.

The astronauts were brought by helicopter to a nearby site for a welcome ceremony; then Romanenko boarded a Russia-bound plane, and Marshburn and Hadfield got on a NASA jet for Houston. It would take another 20 hours, with two stopovers, to get home. “On the helicopter, he just slept,” Kuyumjian says. “He’d been awake at least 16 hours, if not more, by the time they landed.” Arriving at almost midnight local time, he found “there were already scientists waiting to run tests on him.” Hadfield left the ISS on Monday evening and didn’t get to bed until nearly 2:30 on Wednesday morning. After a few short hours of sleep, he was back for more testing.

At NASA’s Johnson Space Center, where the astronaut corps is based, Hadfield’s days since his return have been given over to scientists prodding him to learn how the human body adapts to space. One of the first he saw was Richard Hughson of the University of Waterloo, who studies how the cardiovascular system changes in microgravity. “Chris wanted to do the Canadian experiments, so we, fortunately, were high-priority,” Hughson said, adding that he’s trying to find out why as many as one-third of astronauts feel dizzy and faint when they return to Earth.

There have been plenty of debriefings for Hadfield, too, and painstaking hours of physical rehabilitation to regain the strength, flexibility and balance lost after months in space. Having so many people clamouring for his time was a change after months aboard the ISS, with only a few other astronauts for physical company. “It’s kind of odd to have 50 people around me, making noise,” Hadfield told Maclean’s not long after returning to Houston. “A lot of people want to talk to me right now.”

That wasn’t the only adjustment. Hadfield shuffled his feet when he walked and was prone to bump into corners when turning in a hallway. His manual dexterity was off. Helene had to drive him around the Johnson campus. (Because of dizziness and other symptoms, astronauts are advised not to drive for the first few weeks they’re home.) “The physical stuff is pretty overwhelming right now,” he said. Microgravity affects virtually every system in the body, causing muscle atrophy and bone loss; on the ISS, astronauts exercise two hours each day to ward off its effects. If they didn’t, six months in space would be comparable to 50 years of aging.

Jeremy Hansen, who, along with David Saint-Jacques, was selected as a Canadian astronaut in 2009, admits that Hadfield’s condition caught him off-guard. “It’s tougher than I realized, coming back to gravity,” said Hansen, 37, who hasn’t yet been to space. “This was the first time I saw the whole process.” After a few weeks, Kuyumjian expects Hadfield will appear nearly back to normal, and Hadfield himself says he’s seeing daily improvements in his condition, but recovering the bone density he’s lost could take about a year. Researchers have studied whether drugs could help prevent bone loss; astronauts take vitamin D in space, but not calcium, says former Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk, now a vice-president at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. In space, “calcium is leaching out of the bones,” and reaches high levels in the bloodstream, Thirsk explained. This puts astronauts at greater risk of kidney stones, a serious danger when they’re so far from medical help.

When Thirsk returned from his six-month stint on the ISS in 2009, the first Canadian to complete a long-duration mission, he spoke frankly about the physical problems he endured, including a far-sightedness that persists today. (Only some astronauts experience vision problems, for reasons that aren’t yet understood; Hadfield and other space travellers are having their eyes examined to help find out why.) Astronauts haven’t always been forthcoming when it comes to discussing their health. “They may be concerned to report things that might be considered weaknesses,” says Laurence Harris of York University, who researches the sensory effects of space travel. “They may play down issues like feeling sick or dizzy, because when they come down, they can’t wait to go up again.”

Like Thirsk, Hadfield has spoken publicly about his physical condition. “I have dizziness,” he said in his first post-mission press conference, just three days after leaving the ISS. “I haven’t held my head up for five months, so my neck is sore and my back is sore.” Under his clothing, he explained, he was wearing a G-suit to push blood into his upper body, since his cardiovascular system hadn’t yet readjusted to counteract gravity’s downward pull. As reporters asked whether he’d consider a move into politics, or a role as the CSA’s new president, Hadfield waved them off. “I’m just trying to learn how to walk again,” he said. “It’s like asking an infant if they’re ready for their Ph.D.”

Hadfield’s openness is unusual. Astronauts are typically reserved, selected for a capacity for solitude and self-reliance—important qualities for anyone who’ll be living in near-isolation for months on end, far from friends and family. If tragedy strikes, they can’t come rushing home. (While Hadfield and his crew were on orbit, Marshburn’s mother died.) The Canadian commander is a natural communicator. His video demonstrating that it’s impossible to cry in zero gravity—the simulated tears pool over his eyes in a giant glassy blob instead of falling—has more than 2.4 million views. If he hadn’t become a military pilot and then an astronaut, it’s possible to imagine him as an affable first-grade teacher.

Lindsay Rous, 29, is a Grade 9 science teacher at Bert Church High School in Airdrie, Alta. As part of a project organized by Let’s Talk Science (a Canadian non-profit science-outreach group) and the CSA, her class got a bubble detector, a clear plastic tube filled with polymer gel that detects neutron radiation. Each time a neutron hits a droplet in the gel, it vapourizes and turns into a bubble. More bubbles means more radiation. Hadfield was using these same detectors, made by Bubble Technology Industries in Chalk River, Ont., to measure neutron radiation on the ISS, just as 7,700 Canadian high school students did their own neutron exposure testing and compared their results to his. “We looked at it every day,” Rous says. “Chris had hundreds of times more radiation than we did, which the students were pleased about,” she adds.

In March, Let’s Talk Science hosted a live downlink with Hadfield from Rous’s school; close to 1,000 students were there. “They were excited for weeks ahead of time,” Rous said, and peppered Hadfield with questions, asking about the food he ate in space and what it was like to use the Canadarm. “They all follow him on Twitter,” she said. “One of them got re-tweeted by him, and it was the coolest thing ever.” Asked why Hadfield generates such excitement, Rous said, “because they’re not reading it in textbooks. They’re participating. They all feel like they know him.”

The first live tweet from space came in 2010; since then, the ISS Internet connection has only improved. Social media broke down the walls between Hadfield and his fans and bridged the distance between the ISS and Earth. It allowed Hadfield to chat with the likes of William Shatner, who tweeted on Jan. 3, “Are you tweeting from space?” Hadfield’s reply: “Yes, standard orbit, Captain. And we’re detecting signs of life on the surface.” While Hadfield has emphasized Canadian science, music and culture throughout his mission, social media ensured him a global following. In February, he posted a photo of Dublin with the message “Tá Éire fíorálainn,” or “Ireland is beautiful,” earning new Irish fans. (Daughter Kristin, one of the Hadfields’ three adult children, is a Ph.D. psychology student living in Dublin.)

While other astronauts, like Hansen and Marshburn, use Twitter, none is as prolific as Hadfield. From the ISS, he posted between eight and 15 tweets per day, according to his son Evan, who was kept busy full-time managing his dad’s many social media accounts—Facebook, Tumblr, YouTube, SoundCloud and others—from his home near Frankfurt, Germany. On Twitter, Hadfield might describe what he’d eaten for breakfast, or post one of his stunning photos of a city or landscape on Earth, often with a poetic description. (Budapest, May 8: “The surrounding hills newly alive with the green of spring.”) People tweeted at Hadfield, too, asking questions, offering encouragement or gratitude: “Thank you for inspiring my daughters’ interest in space,” said one Melbourne woman on May 19. “Three new potential female astronauts.” “You are a true Canadian hero, and you have made space cool again,” from another. “I’m a seventh-grade teacher and you have been a frequent visitor to my classroom.” And: “He made us proud to be Canadian.”

With Evan’s help, Hadfield organized an “Ask Me Anything” on Reddit in February, holing himself up with a laptop to answer questions from the ISS. All this social media outreach wasn’t an official duty, and even made his CSA bosses a bit nervous at first, although CSA’s own Twitter feed was soon enthusiastically retweeting Hadfield and his followers. They’d initially worried his days were packed full enough. There’s rarely free time, with duties ranging from maintenance and upkeep of the ship, to the two hours of daily exercise, to scheduled public appearances (such as the downlink at Rous’s school), to the roughly 130 science experiments taking place on board. These range from studying how the human heart adapts in space, to how colloids (particles suspended in a medium) behave, to hunting for dark matter, the invisible stuff that knits together the universe.

In the week of Jan. 28, for example, the crew managed to complete 71 hours of science, setting a new record for the station. Hadfield fired off a photo or a tweet whenever he had a moment. Even after he officially assumed command, on March 13, his pace didn’t slow. Describing his urgency to make the absolute most of his mission, Hadfield quotes a poem from Rudyard Kipling: “It’s months of filling the unforgiving minute.”

Gwen Walter, Helene’s mother, who lives in Victoria, runs Expedition35.com, which sells mission memorabilia such as water bottles, T-shirts and baseball caps with the expedition logo. “I’ve been producing souvenirs since Chris’s first mission in 1995,” Walter says. (She also runs Kalamari Enterprises, which sells promotional products, from travel mugs to tote bags.) Fielding orders, Walter sometimes lets it drop that Hadfield is her son-in-law. “I’m not bragging,” she says, “I just know [the clients] would like that.”

“Good Lord Gwen, you must be seriously proud!” emailed Richard Daly, an Irish schoolteacher. “I’m actually a bit star-struck here, emailing Chris Hadfield’s mother-in-law.” Daly teaches a class of 11-year-olds, and every day, “we did mathematics with Chris. He’d be on the large interactive screen going on about his daily work on board and we’d have the live ISS TV feed on in the background.” Hadfield inspired these students “like I’ve never seen a scientist or anyone else do before. I’m happy that his mother-in-law, or maybe even Chris, some day, will know that 30 Irish children will leave my class to go on with their lives, knowing that there are no boundaries to achievement.”

On May 9, just a few days before Hadfield, Marshburn and Romanenko were scheduled to leave the ISS, a troubling leak of ammonia coolant was spotted outside the station. Late the next day, NASA and its partners approved plans for an emergency spacewalk. Marshburn and another American, Chris Cassidy, were assigned to do the repair. (Six astronauts were on the ISS at the time.)

Hadfield was the first Canadian ever to leave a spacecraft and float in space, back in 2001. Before the launch, he’d said he would welcome the opportunity to do a spacewalk, although none was scheduled for him. In this spacewalk, he served as choreographer, helping suit up the astronauts and coordinating the process from inside the ship. “The logic [to not using Hadfield] was that Chris was flying the capsule home on Monday,” says Tim Braithwaite, the CSA’s liaison manager in Houston. (A Russian traditionally commands the Soyuz, in this case, Romanenko; Hadfield was co-pilot.) In the 5½ hours Marshburn and Cassidy spent outside the ship, they appear to have fixed the leak. Hadfield says he’s not disappointed he didn’t get to do the spacewalk. “I have no regrets, none,” he says. “Naysayers could have said, ‘You were doing so many things, there’s no way you could have responded [to an emergency].’ ” And yet, with one day’s notice, they did.

One of Hadfield’s last dispatches from space was a cover of David Bowie’s Space Oddity, the 1969 song about fame and alienation. (It now has more than 14 million views.) Floating with his guitar and gazing down at Earth, Hadfield seems reflective, but the altered lyrics suggest he’s ready to return home: Instead of melancholic Major Tom, who felt there was nothing he could do, Hadfield sings there’s “nothing left to do.”

“I set myself main objectives years ago,” Hadfield told Maclean’s: to bring home a healthy crew; to leave the ISS in better shape; and to do a lot of science in space. As for his massive public outreach campaign, Hadfield—who’d flown twice before this mission—already had a notion of how much could be shared from low-Earth orbit. The technology that let him do it (and the high-tech camera he used to capture Earth from the sky) had reached the point where it was possible. With the support of others, such as his tech-savvy son, Evan, Hadfield arrived on the ISS with a plan to “make this a shared experience.” He’s fond of saying that space is “way too good to keep to yourself.”

Over the coming days and weeks, as Hadfield emerges from the NASA bubble he’s been in, the scope of his new-found fame could well catch him off-guard. Right now, deep in his debriefings and physical therapy sessions, “I’m almost completely insulated from it,” he says. Hadfield is scheduled to be parade marshal at the Calgary Stampede in July and in Ottawa for Canada Day. He’s getting reacquainted with life on Earth. “We were eating breakfast yesterday, and Chris was like, ‘Man, look at the trees out the window,’ ” Hansen says. “He was just taken aback.”

When Hadfield was nine years old and saw Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walk on the moon, there was no Canadian space program. “It wasn’t just hard, but impossible, to be an astronaut,” he says. That’s what he set out to become, and spent the rest of his life working toward that goal. Having achieved it, Hadfield squeezed every last drop out of his command, taking millions along for the ride. He used his photos and tweets to show that space, like Earth, is familiar yet strange, and staggeringly beautiful. Five months later, the planet feels a bit more connected than it did before. “I’d say thank you to Chris Hadfield,” says Rous, the high school teacher in Alberta, “because he changed us.”

COUNTDOWN

Hadfield by the numbers

He had 20,000 Twitter followers when he blasted off. He came back with a million.

1 The number of Canadian-built guitars aboard the International Space Station (it’s a Larrivée acoustic)

2 The days it took Hadfield’s crew to reach the International Space Station after launching on Dec. 19 in the Russian Soyuz spacecraft

2 The number of inches some astronauts stretch while in space

2.5 The hours devoted to exercise each day on the station, to ward off effects of microgravity (includes time spent cleaning up)

5 The number of “firsts” Hadfield has set for the Canadian space program. He was the first Canadian mission specialist on a NASA shuttle mission to the Russian space station, Mir; the first Canadian to operate the Canadarm in orbit; the first Canadian ever to leave a spacecraft and float freely in space; and, as of this year, the first Canadian commander.

8-15 The number of tweets Chris Hadfield sent from space in a day

46 The number of people and organizations he follows on Twitter, including Bryan Adams, Maclean’s reporter Kate Lunau, and the ultimate spaceman, William Shatner who asked, “Are you tweeting from space?” on Jan. 3 and got a quick reply: “Yes, standard orbit, Captain. And we’re detecting signs of life on the surface”

70+ The number of different types of aircraft Hadfield has flown

92 The minutes it takes the ISS to circle Earth once, travelling eight kilometres a second

71 The hours of science performed on the ISS in one week (that of Jan. 28), breaking a previous station record

130+ The number of science experiments Hadfield and his crewmates conducted while on the ISS

144 The number of days Hadfield lived on the ISS, which translates to 2,336 orbits around the planet, a distance of almost 100 million kilometres

5,330 The number of applicants to be a Canadian astronaut in 1992, the year Hadfield and three others were selected

11,000 The number of followers Chris Hadfield has gained each day of the mission across all his social networks, including Twitter, Facebook, Google+, SoundCloud, Tumblr, his personal YouTube account and his now-defunct Pinterest page

990,375 His number of Twitter followers, as of May 21

14,704,331 The number of times his cover of David Bowie’s Space Oddity has been watched on the astronaut’s YouTube channel, as of May 24

Compiled by Kate Lunau and Patricia Treble




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The wonder of Chris Hadfield

  1. Thanks Kate! Delighted to have been mentioned in the article! Chris’ influence and inspiration has travelled far beyond Canada and he’s a hero to the children in my class in Ireland. As we’d say in Irish, Go n’eirí leat Chris! Go well!

  2. What an amazing contribution to the education of young and old alike! Thank you, Commander Chris Hadfield, words truly are not sufficient!

  3. ****Hadfield has become the most celebrated astronaut alive****

    Then for gawdsake promote the new icons of this century……scientists, engineers, astronauts, mathematicians, astrophysicists, people with brains…..people involved in the search for knowledge… and leave the Industrial Age behind!

    Hadfield just handed us….as Canadians….. the opportunity on a silver platter….where is the Canada Space Agency?…..what is it doing?…..how well is it funded?….what is next?

    Are you asking?

    Are we going to bury it all under the Duffy/Senate and Rob Ford crap or are we going to move ahead with something that really matters?

    This is the knowledge economy folks, the 21st century, the future you will all live in….as will your kids and grandkids……make it a good one

    • Agreed. It would be wonderful, to see brains celebrated over appearance.

  4. We live at Spain, and my daughter Ana (3 years) is fascinated with the ISS, the Soyuz, the planet earth form orbit… All thanks to Chris Hadfield. He is an example of the best of humankind. THANK YOU, COMMANDER =)

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